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Liverpool 3 Bolton Wanderers 0: Pennant wings it as Reds outflank Allardyce

What had threatened to turn into an embarrassing start to the new year for Rafael Benitez evolved instead as a satisfyingly emphatic victory for the Liverpool manager over an opponent with whom he has developed something of a fixation.

The Spaniard's disapproval of Bolton's physical style and the ways in which they test the limits of permissible tactics is hardly a secret but his willingness to revisit the subject on the eve of yesterday's encounter with Sam Allardyce's side could have supplied exactly the fillip required by a visiting team seeking a sixth straight win.

Indeed, by half-time, although Bolton had been largely ineffective to that point, his own team's frustrating inability to turn possession into goals left open the possibility that his plans to knock his rival out of third place in the Premiership would go horribly wrong.

In the event, everything thereafter went absolutely right, starting with a splendid scissor-kick goal from Peter Crouch in the 61st minute, followed 82 seconds later by a thumping volley by Steven Gerrard that effectively decided the result and capped seven minutes from the end when Dirk Kuyt squeezed home the goal his performance deserved to produce a scoreline with which nobody could argue.

Moreover, it was a victory for tactics. As Allardyce complained that fatigue left his players virtually too weak to give the referee Graham Poll any decisions to make, Benitez noted the success of his use of wingers, in particular Jermaine Pennant, in ensuring that Bolton's tired legs were given no chance to rest.

"Both teams were tired today but we knew that if we could get in behind their defence we could keep Bolton busy at the back and stop them from putting us under pressure," Benitez said. "We knew it would be a difficult game but that if we kept moving and passing the ball then the opportunities would come. And the three goals we scored were fantastic."

Pennant, more than Mark Gonzalez, was the key. Gerrard, as ever, worked phenomenally hard, but it was Pennant who bore the heaviest workload. His crosses were not always of the quality required, but the one that Crouch so skilfully converted to break Bolton's resistance was perfect, wrong-footing the visiting defenders just enough to allow the striker to find the space he needed.

It worked so well, in fact, that Kuyt virtually repeated the trick to set up Liverpool's almost instant second, Gerrard advancing into effectively the same space to power the ball home right-footed, from which point Bolton looked like a team resigned to defeat.

Crouch had scored a similarly acrobatic goal against Galatasaray in the Champions' League in September and produced a two- fingered salute to mark his repeat performance and his 10th goal of the season for Liverpool, albeit his first in the Premiership since October. Were he as good in the air as he should be, given his height advantage, he might have double that number. Yesterday alone, Crouch missed with three headers from which he probably should have scored, although Benitez insisted his player is improving that part of his game.

On this occasion it did not matter. By the time Kuyt ran on to Luis Garcia's pass to score their third, Liverpool were comfortable. They also extended to 574 minutes their impressive run of not conceding a goal at home. It also meant the controversy which might have blown up after Benitez accused Bolton of stepping outside the rules in their practice of obstructing the goalkeeper at set pieces never happened. Liverpool, ironically, were the team most punished for fouls on the goalkeeper. "I don't mind that," the Spaniard said. "If the referee applies the same rules to everybody, then it is perfect."

Allardyce admitted he had not liked what Benitez had said and regretted not giving him more grounds for grumbling. "I wish we had been able to put the referee under pressure but we did not create anything," he said. "Four games in 10 days was one too many for us but at least the disappointment of defeat today follows three excellent victories."

Goals: Crouch (61) 1-0; Gerrard (63) 2-0; Kuyt (83) 3-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Pennant, Gerrard (Aurelio, 84), Alonso, Gonzalez (Garcia, 69); Kuyt (Fowler, 85), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Agger.

Bolton Wanderers (4-3-3): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Ben Haim, Faye, Gardner; Nolan (Teimourian, 81), Campo, Speed (Tal, 66); Davies, Anelka, Diouf (Vaz Te, 66). Substitutes not used: Al-Habsi (gk), Meite.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Bolton Ben Haim, Campo, Faye.

Man of the match: Kuyt.

Attendance: 41,370.